فصل 22

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فصل 22

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22

Matthew headed north and west and out of the city with Diana beside him. He drove uncharacteristically fast, and in less than fifteen minutes they were on a quiet lane tucked into the shadow of the peaks known locally as the Sleeping Giant. Matthew pulled in to an otherwise dark driveway and shut off the car’s ignition. A porch light came on, and an elderly man peered into the darkness.

“That you, Mr. Clairmont?” The man’s voice was faint and thready but there was still a sharp intelligence in his eyes.

“It is, Mr. Phelps,” Matthew said with a nod. He circled the car and helped Diana down. “My wife and I are going up to the cottage.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” Mr. Phelps said, touching his forehead with his hand. “Mr.

Gallowglass called to warn me you might be stopping by to check on things. He said not to worry if I heard somebody out here.”

“I’m sorry we woke you,” Diana said.

“I’m an old man, Mrs. Clairmont. I don’t get much shut-eye these days. I figure I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Mr. Phelps said with a wheezing laugh. “You’ll find everything you need up on the mountain.”

“Thank you for watching over the place,” Matthew said.

“It’s a family tradition,” Mr. Phelps replied. “You’ll find Mr. Whitmore’s Ranger by the shed, if you don’t want to use my old Gator. I don’t imagine your wife will want to walk all that way. The park gates are closed, but you know how to get in. Have a nice night.”

Mr. Phelps went back inside, the screen hitting the doorframe with a snap of aluminum and mesh.

Matthew took Diana by the elbow and steered her toward what looked like a a cross between a golf cart with unusually rugged tires and a dune buggy. He let go of her only long enough to round the vehicle and climb in.

The gate into the park was so well hidden it was all but invisible, and the dirt trail that served as a road was unlit and unmarked, but Matthew found both with ease. He navigated a few sharp turns, climbing steadily as they traveled up the side of the mountain, passing through the edges of heavy forest until they reached an open field with a small wooden house tucked under the trees. The lights were on inside, making it as golden and inviting as a cottage in a fairy tale.

Matthew stopped Marcus’s Ranger and engaged the brake. He took a deep breath to drink in the night scents of mountain pine and dew-touched grass. Below, the valley looked bleak. He wondered if it was his mood or the silvered moonlight that rendered it so unwelcoming.

“The ground is uneven. I don’t want you to fall.” Matthew held out his hand, giving Diana the choice whether to take it or not.

After a concerned look, she put her hand in his. Matthew scanned the horizon, unable to stop searching for new threats. Then his attention turned skyward.

“The moon is bright tonight,” he mused. “Even here it’s hard to see the stars.”

“That’s because it’s Mabon,” Diana said quietly.

“Mabon?” Matthew looked startled.

She nodded. “One year ago you walked into the Bodleian Library and straight into my heart. As soon as that wicked mouth of yours smiled, the moment your eyes lightened with recognition even though we’d never met before, I knew that my life would never be the same.”

Diana’s words gave Matthew a momentary reprieve from the relentless agitation that Baldwin’s order and Chris’s news had set off in him, and for a brief moment the world was poised between absence and desire, between blood and fear, between the warmth of summer and the icy depths of winter.

“What’s wrong?” Diana searched his face. “Is it Jack? The blood rage? Baldwin?”

“Yes. No. In a way.” Matthew drove his hands through his hair and whirled around to avoid her keen gaze. “Baldwin knows that Jack killed those warmbloods in Europe. He knows that Jack is the vampire murderer.”

“Surely this isn’t the first time a vampire’s thirst for blood had resulted in unexpected deaths,”

Diana said, trying to defuse the situation.

“This time it’s different.” There was no easy way to say it. “Baldwin ordered me to kill Jack.”

“No. I forbid it.” Diana’s words echoed, and a wind kicked up from the east. She whirled around, and Matthew caught her. She struggled in his grip, sending a gray-and-brown twist of air howling around his feet.

“Don’t walk away from me.” He wasn’t sure he could control himself if she did. “You must listen to reason.”

“No.” Still she tried to avoid him. “You can’t give up on him. Jack won’t always have blood rage.

You’re going to find a cure.”

“Blood rage has no cure.” Matthew would have given his life to change that fact.

“What?” Diana’s shock was evident.

“We’ve been running the new DNA samples. For the first time, we’re able to chart a multigenerational pedigree that extends beyond Marcus. Chris and Miriam traced the blood-rage gene from Ysabeau through me and Andrew down to Jack.” Matthew had Diana’s complete attention now.

“Blood rage is a developmental anomaly,” he continued. “There’s a genetic component, but the blood-rage gene appears to be triggered by something in our noncoding DNA. Jack and I have that something. Maman, Marcus, and Andrew don’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Diana whispered.

“During my rebirth something already in my noncoding, human DNA reacted to the new genetic information flooding my system,” Matthew said patiently. “We know that vampire genes are brutal— they push aside what’s human in order to dominate the newly modified cells. But they don’t replace everything. If they did, my genome and Ysabeau’s would be identical. Instead I am her child—a combination of the genetic ingredients I inherited from my human parents as well as what I inherited from her.”

“So you had blood rage before Ysabeau made you vampire?” Diana was understandably confused.

“No. But I possessed the triggers the blood-rage gene needed to express itself,” Matthew said.

“Marcus has identified specific noncoding DNA that he believes plays a role.”

“In what he calls junk DNA?” Diana asked.

Matthew nodded.

“Then a cure is still possible,” she insisted. “In a few years—”

“No, mon coeur.” He couldn’t allow her hopes to rise. “The more we understand the blood-rage gene and learn about the noncoding genes, the better the treatment might become, but this is not a disease we can cure. Our only hope is to prevent it and, God willing, lessen its symptoms.”

“Until you do, you can teach Jack how to control it.” Diana’s face remained set in stubborn lines.

“There’s no need to kill him.”

“Jack’s symptoms are far worse than mine. The genetic factors that appear to trigger the disease are present at much higher levels in him.” Matthew blinked back the blood tears that he could feel forming.

“He won’t suffer any pain or fear. I promise you.”

“But you will. You say I pay a price for dealing with matters of life and death? So do you. Jack will be gone, but you will live on, hating yourself,” Diana said. “Think of what Philippe’s death has cost you.”

Matthew could think of little else. He had killed other creatures since his father’s death, but only to settle his own scores. Until tonight the last de Clermont sire to command him to kill had been Philippe.

And the death Philippe had ordered was his own.

“Jack is suffering, Diana. This would mean an end to it.” Matthew used the same words Philippe had to convince his wife to admit the inevitable.

“For him maybe. Not for us.” Diana’s hand strayed to the round swell of her belly. “The twins could have blood rage. Will you kill them, too?”

She waited for him to deny it, to tell her that she was insane to even think of such a thing. But he didn’t.

“When the Congregation discovers what Jack has done—and it’s only a matter of time before they do—they will kill him. And they won’t care how frightened he is or how much pain they cause. Baldwin will try to kill Jack before it comes to that, to keep the Congregation out of the family business. If he tries to run, Jack could fall into Benjamin’s hands. If he does, Benjamin will exact a terrible revenge for Jack’s betrayal. Death would be a blessing then.” Matthew’s face and voice were impassive, but the agony that flashed through Diana’s eyes would haunt him forever.

“Then Jack will disappear. He’ll go far away, where nobody can find him.”

Matthew smothered his impatience. He’d known that Diana was stubborn when he first met her. It was one of the reasons he loved her—even though at times it drove him to distraction. “A lone vampire cannot survive. Like wolves, we have to be part of a pack or we go mad. Think of Benjamin, Diana, and what happened when I abandoned him.”

“We’ll go with him,” she said, grasping at straws in her efforts to save Jack.

“That would only make it easier for Benjamin or the Congregation to hunt him down.”

“Then you must establish a scion immediately, as Marcus suggested,” Diana said. “Jack will have a whole family to protect him.”

“If I do, I’ll have to acknowledge Benjamin. That would expose not only Jack’s blood rage but my own. It would put Ysabeau and Marcus in terrible danger—the twins, too. And it’s not just them who will suffer if we stand against the Congregation without Baldwin’s support.” Matthew drew a ragged breath. “If you’re at my side—my consort—the Congregation will demand your submission as well as mine.”

“Submission?” Diana said faintly.

“This is war, Diana. That’s what happens to women who fight. You heard my mother’s tale. Do you think your fate would be any different at the vampires’ hands?”

She shook her head.

“You must believe me: We are far better off remaining in Baldwin’s family than striking out on our own,” he insisted. “You’re wrong. The twins and I will never be entirely safe under Baldwin’s rule.

Neither will Jack. Standing our ground is the only possible way forward. Every other road just leads back into the past,” Diana said. “And we know from experience that the past is never more than a temporary reprieve.”

“You don’t understand the forces that would gather against us if I do this. Everything my children and grandchildren have done or will ever do is laid at my doorstep under vampire law. The vampire murders? I committed them. Benjamin’s evil deeds? I am guilty of them.” Matthew had to make Diana see what this decision might cost.

“They can’t blame you for what Benjamin and Jack did,” Diana protested.

“But they can.” Matthew cradled her hands between his. “I made Benjamin. If I hadn’t, none of these crimes would have taken place. It was my job, as Benjamin’s sire and Jack’s grandsire, to curb them if possible or to kill them if not.”

“That’s barbaric.” Diana tugged at her hands. He could feel the power burning under her skin.

“No, that’s vampire honor. Vampires can survive among warmbloods because of three systems of belief: law, honor, and justice. You saw vampire justice at work tonight,” Matthew said. “It’s swift—and brutal. If I stand as sire of my own scion, I’ll have to mete it out, too.”

“Rather you than Baldwin,” Diana retorted. “If he’s in charge, I’ll always wonder if this is the day he will grow tired of protecting me and the twins and order our deaths.”

His wife had a point. But it put Matthew in an impossible situation. To save Jack, Matthew would have to disobey Baldwin. If he disobeyed Baldwin, he would have no choice but to become the sire of his own scion. That would require convincing a pack of rebellious vampires to accept his leadership and risk their own extermination by exposing the blood rage in their ranks. It would be a bloody, violent, and complicated process.

“Please, Matthew,” Diana whispered. “I beg you: Do not follow Baldwin’s order.”

Matthew examined his wife’s face. He took into account the pain and desperation he saw in her eyes. It was impossible to say no.

“Very well,” Matthew replied reluctantly. “I’ll go to New Orleans—on one condition.”

Diana’s relief was evident. “Anything. Name it.”

“You don’t come with me.” Matthew kept his voice even, though the mere mention of being away from his mate was enough to send the blood rage surging through his veins.

“Don’t you dare order me to stay here!” Diana said, her own anger flaring.

“You can’t be anywhere near me while I do this.” Centuries of practice made it possible for Matthew to keep his own feelings in check, in spite of his wife’s agitation. “I don’t want to go anywhere without you. Christ, I can barely let you out of my sight. But having you in New Orleans while I battle my own grandchildren would put you in terrible danger. And it wouldn’t be Baldwin or the Congregation who would be putting your safety at risk. It would be me.”

“You would never hurt me.” Diana had clung to this belief from the beginning of their relationship.

It was time to tell her the truth.

“Eleanor thought that—once. Then I killed her in a moment of madness and jealousy. Jack’s not the only vampire in this family whose blood rage is set off by love and loyalty.” Matthew met his wife’s eyes.

“You and Eleanor were merely lovers. We’re mates.” Diana’s expression revealed her dawning understanding. “All along you’ve said I shouldn’t trust you. You swore you would kill me yourself before you let anyone else touch me.”

“I told you the truth.” Matthew’s fingertips traced the line of Diana’s cheekbone, sweeping up to catch the tear that threatened to fall from the corner of her eye.

“But not the whole truth. Why didn’t you tell me that our mating bond was going to make your blood rage worse?” Diana cried.

“I thought I could find a cure. Until then, I thought I could manage my feelings,” Matthew replied.

“But you have become as vital to me as breath and blood. My heart no longer knows where I end and you begin. I knew that you were a powerful witch from the moment I saw you, but how could I have imagined that you would have so much power over me?”

Diana answered him not with words but with a kiss that was startling in its intensity. Matthew’s response matched it. When they drew apart they were both shaken. Diana touched her lips with trembling fingers. Matthew rested his head atop hers, his heart—her heart—thudding with emotion.

“Founding a new scion will require my complete attention, as well as complete control,” Matthew said when at last he was able to speak. “If I succeed—”

“You must,” Diana said firmly. “You will.”

“Very well, ma lionne. When I succeed, there will still be times when I’ll have to handle matters on my own,” Matthew explained. “It isn’t that I distrust you, but I cannot trust myself.”

“Like you’ve handled Jack,” Diana said. Matthew nodded.

“Being apart from you will be a living hell, but being distracted would be unspeakably dangerous.

As for my control . . . well, I think we know just how little I have when you are around.” He brushed her lips with another kiss, this one seductive. Diana’s cheeks reddened and Matthew smiled.

“What will I do while you’re in New Orleans?” Diana asked. “There must be some way I can help you.”

“Find that missing page from Ashmole 782,” Matthew replied. “We’ll need the Book of Life for leverage—no matter what happens with Marcus’s children.” The fact that the search would keep Diana from being directly involved in the disaster should this harebrained scheme fail was an added benefit.

“Phoebe will help you look for the third illumination. Go to Sept-Tours. Wait there for me.”

“How will I know you’re all right?” Diana asked. The reality of their impending separation was beginning to sink in. “I’ll find a way. But no phone calls. No emails. We can’t leave a trail of evidence for the Congregation to follow if Baldwin—or one of my own blood—turns me in,” Matthew said. “You have to remain in his good graces, at least until you are recognized as a de Clermont.”

“But that’s months away!” Diana’s expression turned desperate. “What if the children are born early?”

“Marthe and Sarah will deliver them,” he said gently. “There’s no telling how long this will take, Diana.” It could be years, Matthew thought.

“How will I make the children understand why their father isn’t with them?” she asked.

“You will tell the twins I had to stay away because I loved them—and their mother—with all my heart.” Matthew’s voice broke. He pulled her into his arms, holding her as though that might delay her inevitable departure.

“Matthew?” The familiar voice came out of the darkness.

“Marcus?” Diana had not heard his approach, though Matthew had picked up first his scent and then the soft sound of his son’s footsteps as he climbed the mountain.

“Hello, Diana.” Marcus stepped out of the shadows and into a patch of moonlight.

She frowned with concern. “Is something wrong at Sept-Tours?”

“Everything in France is fineI thought Matthew needed me here,” Marcus said.

“And Phoebe?” Diana asked.

“With Alain and Marthe.” Marcus sounded tired. “I couldn’t help but overhear your plans. There will be no turning back once we put them in motion. Are you sure about forming a scion, Matthew?”

“No,” Matthew said, unable to lie. “But Diana is.” He looked at his wife. “Chris and Gallowglass are waiting for you down the path. Go now, mon coeur.”

“This minute?” For a moment Diana looked frightened at the enormity of what they were about to do.

“It will never be any easier. You’re going to have to walk away from me. Don’t look back. And for God’s sake don’t run.” Matthew would never be able to control himself if she did.

“But—” Diana pressed her lips together. She nodded and dashed the back of her hand against her cheek, brushing away sudden tears.

Matthew put more than a thousand years of longing into one last kiss.

“I’ll never—” Diana began.

“Hush.” He silenced her with another touch of his lips. “No nevers for us, remember?”

Matthew set her away from him. It was only a few inches, but it might have been a thousand leagues. As soon as he did, his blood howled. He turned her so she could see the two faint circles of light from their friends’ flashlights.

“Don’t make this harder on him,” Marcus told Diana softly. “Go now. Slowly.”

For a few seconds, Matthew wasn’t sure she would be able to do it. He could see the gold and silver threads hanging from her fingertips, sparking and shimmering as if trying to fuse together something that had been suddenly, horribly broken. She took a tentative step. Then another. Matthew saw the muscles in her back trembling as she struggled to keep her composure. Her head dropped. Then she squared her shoulders and slowly walked in the opposite direction.

“I knew from the goddamn beginning you were going to break her heart,” Chris called to Matthew when she reached him. He drew Diana into his arms.

But it was Matthew’s heart that was breaking, taking with it his composure, his sanity, and his last traces of humanity.

Marcus watched him without blinking as Gallowglass and Chris led Diana away. When they disappeared from sight, Matthew leaped forward. Marcus caught him, hoping to God that he would be able to restrain his father by himself.

“Are you going to make it without her?” Marcus asked him. He had been away from Phoebe for less than twelve hours and already he was uneasy.

“I have to,” Matthew said, though at the moment he couldn’t imagine how. “Does Diana know what being apart will do to you?” Marcus still had nightmares about Ysabeau and how much she had suffered during Philippe’s capture and death. It had been like watching someone go through the worst withdrawal imaginable—the shaking, the irrational behavior, the physical pain.

And his grandparents were among the fortunate few vampires who, though mated, could be separated for periods of time. Matthew’s blood rage made that impossible. Even before Matthew and Diana were fully mated, Ysabeau had warned Marcus that his father was not to be trusted if something were to happen to Diana.

“Does she know?” Marcus repeated.

“Not entirely. She knows what will happen to me if I stay here and obey my brother, though.”

Matthew shook off his son’s arm. “You don’t have to go along with this—with me. You still have a choice. Baldwin will take you in, so long as you beg for his forgiveness.”

“I made my choice in 1781, remember?” Marcus’s eyes were silver in the moonlight. “Tonight you’ve proved it was the right one.”

“There are no guarantees this will work,” Matthew warned. “Baldwin might refuse to sanction the scion. The Congregation could get wind of what we’re doing before we’re through. God knows your own children have reason to oppose it.”

“They’re not going to make it easy for you, but my children will do what I tell them to do.

Eventually. Besides,” Marcus said, “you’re under my protection now.”

Matthew looked at him in surprise.

“The safety of you, your mate, and those twins she’s carrying is now the Knights of Lazarus’s top priority,” Marcus explained. “Baldwin can threaten all he wants, but I have more than a thousand vampires, daemons, and yes, even witches, under my command.”

“They’ll never obey you,” Matthew said, “not when they find out what you’re asking them to fight for.”

“How do you think I recruited them in the first place?” Marcus shook his head. “Do you really think you’re the only two creatures on the planet who have reason to dislike the covenant’s restrictions?”

But Matthew was too distracted to respond. He already felt the first, restless impulse to go after Diana. Soon he wouldn’t be able to sit still for more than a few moments before his instincts demanded he go to her. And it would only get worse from there.

“Come on.” Marcus put his arm across his father’s shoulders. “Jack and Andrew are waiting for us.

I suppose the damn dog will have to come to New Orleans, too.”

Still Matthew didn’t respond. He was listening for Diana’s voice, her distinctive step, the rhythm of her heartbeat. There was only silence, and stars too faint to show him the way home. Sol in Libra

When the sun passeth through Libra, it is a good time for journeys. Beware of open enemies, war, and opposition. —Anonymous English Commonplace Book, c. 1590, Gonçalves MS 4890, f. 13r

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